With Thanksgiving and Christmas safely back in our rearview mirrors, I’ve found myself thinking about the role food plays in our lives. Feasting is an ancient tradition dating back hundreds of years. It’s not until relatively recently, however, that eating has emerged as a competitive sport. A 2008 Time Magazine article titled “A Brief History of Competitive Eating” reports that the first documented eating contest was Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest in 1916. The stakes in first contest weren’t very high — four men competed to prove their patriotism.
In many ways, the competitive eating phenomenon is distinctly American. Another early example of an eating contest includes a New York Yankees sponsored pasta eating contest in 1919. Even better, Americans and Soviets brought the Cold War into the kitchen by having weight lifters compete in a gorging gauntlet in 1958. (Mutually Assured Destruction can wait, we’ve got lobster to eat.) So to recap, competitive eating has touched pockets of American culture from hot dogs to baseball to Cold War rivalries. I’d say that’s about as American as you can get. Ok, enough with the history lesson.
While some might say this is indicative of a gluttonous and wasteful culture, I say keep serving it up. Eating contests have become a part of Americana and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. And why should they? Eating competitions are gross and funny and intense and somehow make a lot of sense. In a lot of ways, eating serves the same purpose for sports that it does for holidays. In both instances large groups of people gather together bond over a shared interest, and usually eat a ton, literally. On Thanksgiving we sit and over eat and celebrate our American heritage. On every Sunday between September and February, we sit and over eat and celebrate our love for watching athletes who don’t over eat perform incredible feats of athleticism on the football field. Why wouldn’t it make sense to combine the two?
I hear everyone yelling that obesity is already out of hand in America, but that has nothing to do with to do with eating competitions. When I watched Joey Chestnut eat 69 hot dogs in the 2013 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, I definitely didn’t want any hot dogs. I did, however, want to sit with my friends and rant and rave and celebrate being American in one of the most American ways possible.